Early bird on early years?;Last Word

5th June 1998 at 01:00
LYING in bed in that half-conscious state which is the only way to access the Today programme, I suddenly snapped to attention at the voice of David Blunkett. He was about to announce the Government's childcare strategy, alongside Social Security Secretary, Harriet Harman.

"It's not just about looking after children," he was saying, "it is about children's development and education." It would "make a real difference to the lives of millions of children and their families".

At last. Dammit, that was the sort of thing I used to write myself about early-years policies back in the days when brutalist ministers like Kenneth Clarke and Eric Forth were dismissing the benefits of nursery education, let alone any attempt to integrate it with family care needs. Even the most civil of civil servants scoffed pre-election at the idea of providing nursery education, topped off with care, to order.

Nobody can say now that New Labour's education policies are no different to the old lot. The Green Paper Meeting the Childcare Challenge, with its across-the-board strategies - and money - is confirmation that joined-up social policies are moving a step closer from ministerial rhetoric to reality.

Harder proof can be expected next month with publication of the Treasury's comprehensive spending review, and in particular its cross-departmental analysis of all spending on children from 0 to 7.

We don't know yet how comprehensively the Treasury can rationalise the overlapping policies and budgets for children and their families now scattered throughout Whitehall departments, as well as in Education and Employment (which are at least under the same management now). And even a Treasury analysis which makes the connection between early years, inequalities and social exclusion, will only be a first step. Any effective collaboration will require constant attention, ground-breaking and accountability to sustain.

Should a national strategy for children be Treasury-led? Meeting the Childcare Challenge is an ambitious start, but plainly still falls a few projects short of a grand design, especially in its education and child development content. We don't have nearly enough nursery classes for all three and four-year-olds, or training programmes for their teachers, or even agreement on how young children learn.

Fortuitously, on the same day as my wake-up call from Blunkett, the balance was restored at the launch of a seminal document from the Early Childhood Education Forum. Rich in observation and inspiration, Quality in diversity in early learning is published by the National Children's Bureau, which spawned the forum under the leadership of Gillian Pugh, then director of its Early Childhood Unit. (Here I should declare an interest, since I am proud to sit on the board of the NCB, which exists to provide a voice for all children across education, health and welfare divides.) The document was hammered out of collaboration between nearly every early childhood guru in the business, and comes out at just the right time, as local authorities seek to turn their early-years development plans and partnerships into going concerns.

The framework recognises the diversity in both provision and demand, so at its heart is a practical and lucid guide to children's learning that will support any practitioner through the official maze of targets, outcomes and inspections and make most of them irrelevant. Throw away the bulging quango files. This is about how children learn, not how to get them through the next test.

Gillian Pugh now directs the Thomas Coram Research Foundation, but if anyone inspired the integration of early childhood education and care policies it was she, most notably as adviser to the Rumbold Committee which published the Department of Education and Science report Starting with Quality in 1990. Angela Rumbold's boss Kenneth Clarke promptly shelved that one, and it was New Labour which eventually ran with the idea. Now The Guardian gives credit for the kids' charter to the new army of women MPs bringing family values into the House, but it would be fairer to praise one of them, Select Committee chairman Margaret Hodge, who shaped the policies through her manifesto taskforce, as well as on the ground in Islington.

I was pessimistic when asked once whether education journalists ever influenced policy-making, though I hoped that Labour might be thinking along the same lines on early years. So I will just mention that you might have read it here too.

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